The 15 chickens milling about a city-run shelter in Minneapolis are blissfully unaware of it, but their owner is fighting to win them back in district court amid accusations from the city that he engaged in cockfighting.

Police entered Cheng Lor's north Minneapolis home on Jan. 8 on an unrelated search warrant and called animal control officers after finding an array of chickens and pens in the garage and basement. Two roosters were dead, with wounds to their upper areas. Other live roosters were in pens, near an area containing bloody carriers, a bloody suitcase with air holes and blood-specked carpet.

Days later the city seized 15 live chickens and four dead ones, including several chicks and three uninjured hens, determining that Lor was likely involved in cockfighting. The Hennepin County attorney's office is reviewing the matter for possible felony animal fighting charges, but in the interim Lor has launched a legal fight to retrieve the animals.

Among the central questions is whether the two dead roosters were killed in an organized fight or, as Lor says, after escaping their pens and engaging in a duel of their own making. Police Sgt. Lindsay Herron said at a January hearing that Lor told her the roosters got out while he was away from the house. "It's just what they would naturally do to establish dominance … as opposed to a commercial fighting operation," Lor's attorney, Casey Rundquist, said in an interview.

The city believes the evidence points to something more. "What we have here are animals being kept in a way that we see is consistent with individuals engaged in cockfighting," Dan Niziolek, the city's manager of animal care and control, said during the hearing. "We have animals with injuries. We have some deceased animals." An administrative law officer agreed earlier this month, ruling that the seizure was valid and that Lor had used the birds for fighting purposes.

One of the dead roosters had duct tape on its leg spurs and beak, which the city said is often used to attach sharp objects during a cockfight. The city also found a glue gun near loose feathers and observed that feathers are sometimes glued to roosters in cockfighting. Scabs and scars were located around the neck and head of some of the live roosters, several of which were missing feathers.

Police also found notebooks, written in another language, which "appeared to be listing dates and money amounts," according to a statement from an animal control officer. The nature of the notebooks could not be deciphered without translation, however.

Chickens at animal shelter

At the city's shelter in north Minneapolis on Thursday, animal control officer Melissa Mathis held up one of the roosters, a powerful-looking bird with a short comb and orange feathers matted like hair around its head and neck. "This one here has an eye injury," Mathis said, turning the bird to reveal a sunken, damaged eye. The rooster's spurs, just above its claws, had been filed down.

The court record indicates the animals may not have been a permanent fixture on Newton Avenue, where Lor's home is located. Lor told investigators he had been storing the roosters at his uncle's farm in the summer and at his house in the winter. Lor's attorney argued that it was possible the roosters were injured on the farm and bled in the carrying cases on the way to the city.

As for the duct tape, Rundquist noted that roosters can use claws and beaks to scratch or peck. "If someone were to want to transport a rooster in a fashion where they couldn't use those claws, they might put duct tape over them; right?" Rundquist asked during the hearing.

But the amount of blood belies normal chicken handling, Niziolek said. "If we would find that level of blood in somebody caring for chickens, we would look at it from an animal cruelty standpoint, which is the other basis that we did for the seizure," Niziolek said during the hearing.

Pattrice Jones, a former Twin Cities college instructor who now is the coordinator of the VINE Sanctuary in Springfield, Vt., challenged the suggestion that the roosters might naturally fight so aggressively.

Jones said roosters do naturally tussle and peck at each other, sometimes drawing bits of blood, but one of them typically wins fairly quickly. "It's more like a dance-off than a fight," Jones said.

"The only natural circumstance in which a rooster will fight to the death is when confronting a predator," she added. "And so basically how cockfighting works is to deprive young roosters of the socialization that would teach them the nonviolent means that roosters naturally resolve their conflicts."

Chuck Laszewski, spokesman for the Hennepin County attorney's office, said the office has not seen many cockfighting cases in recent years — there were none in 2013. "It is not something we get very many of and there doesn't seem to be any kind of a spike or trend upward," Laszewski said.

A city spokesman, Matt Lindstrom, said that while one or two people appeal animal seizures each year in district court, there has not been a similar appeal of chicken seizures in recent history. A judge has been assigned to the case, but a hearing is not yet set.